The shiver of truth – Photographers in Wartime (essay)

’If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re just not close enough’
– Robert Capa

‘I knew that of all the gory and heart-wrenching scenes I had already photographed that
morning, this dead baby was the image that would show the insane cruelty of the attack.
. . . But the light sucked.’
-Greg Marinovich and João Silva, The Bang-Bang Club

War photographers are sometimes dubbed ‘war pornographers’ because of their resolute approach to the most gruesome of tableaux. yet somebody has to do this work. somebody has to provoke ordinary people into waking up from the everyday trivia of their lives.

Kigali, May 1994
A Hutu was molested by Tutsis after being identified as a member of the Hutu led “Interahamwe” death squads that carried out the Rwandan genocide. Photographers taking pictures of the wounded man.

War is horrific to the great majority of us. We raise monuments to commemorate the dead and announce each year ‘never again!’ But there are those among us who simply cannot get enough of it. For the majority of reporters on conflict, for example, a war is both a sublime mission and an addiction. Once they have savoured conflict, it is no easy task to keep them away from it in the future. An Albanian proverb has it thus: ‘For one man war is war, for the other it is his best friend’.
The motivation felt by war reporters may sound noble and altruistic – the world must know what is happening, politicians must be driven to action, etc. – but their true motives are often extremely idiosyncratic. A French female reporter for TF1 confessed to Marcel Ophüls, director of the four-hour documentary The Troubles We’ve Seen: A History of Journalism in Wartime, that she decided to go to Sarajevo in an attempt to forget her marital problems. Similarly, the Belgian biologist and war reporter Dirk Draulans, describes in his book Welkom in de hel how he is released temporarily from his painful feelings of love for the Scandinavian Anne Brit as he journeys along the Bosnian frontlines.
The Hungarian photographer Endre Friedmann, better known as Robert Capa, gave his reasons for landing with the very first American soldiers on the Normandy beaches on D-Day as follows: ‘I know that the war photographer gets more alcohol, more girls, more money and more freedom than the soldier does. At each stage, he can choose his own position in the bloody game and he can be a coward without being executed for it. That is his torment. The war correspondent holds his own input – his life – in his own hands and can stake his bets on different horses. I am a gambler. That’s why I decided to go along with the first wave.’
Capa was 23 when he took his first war photographs in Spain and 41 when, while taking his last, he was fatally blown into the air by a landmine at Thai-Bin, to the south of Hanoi. The Hungarian bears great responsibility for the stereotypical image of the war reporter as the tough, irrepressible trouble-seeker. The photographic agency Magnum, which Capa set up in 1948 together with others including Cartier-Bresson, and the Robert Capa Gold Medal Award for Outstanding Photography have turned the war photographer into an iconic figure: a sort of patron saint of the guild of professional reporters. Capa’s rule of thumb ‘If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough’ still applies today as the creed for the better kind of reportage photography.

Robert Capa has as many imitators as he does admirers, but few true claimants to his throne. One exception is the American war photographer James Nachtwey (52), subject of a documentary by Swiss filmmaker Christian Frei. The latter spent two years making War Photographer, a monumental portrait lasting more than one and a half hours, that was given its premiere at the International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam in November 2001 and that won the first prize at the Viewpoint Documentary Festival 2002 in Ghent. The film reveals that, in terms of lifestyle and temperament, the phlegmatic, tender Nachtwey and his robust Hungarian predecessor differ from one another like day and night. The American does not drink, smoke or gamble, and he has more the abstinence and reserve of a Tibetan Buddhist monk than the air of an exuberant womaniser. Even their photographic styles differ radically. Capa’s work is raw and shadowy; Nachtwey’s photographs are so precisely styled that they could be artistic compositions. Nonetheless, the Magnum photographic agency has already awarded Nachtwey the Robert Capa Gold Medal five times, more often than any other person. The common link between them is in their preparedness to go to the very limits for a handful of good photographs. ‘When it gets up close and personal, that’s Jim’, says a colleague from Reuters in complimentary fashion about the reserved American. In the documentary, it can be seen how Nachtwey approaches war more closely than we, as viewers, might wish. His determination, as ‘a witness to the history of ordinary people’, to be face to face with their horror has something uncomfortably voyeuristic about it. The documentary shows us Nachtwey running alongside paramedics who are carrying away a wounded person on a stretcher. We see him taking photographs at a funeral in Kosovo where he pushes his camera into the despairing face of a woman trying to bury her son. In Indonesia, Nachtwey landed in the middle of a furious crowd hunting down and baying for the blood of four South Moluccans. Three of them were cut into pieces; the fourth was able to break free from his assailants. Nachtwey ran with the terrified man and begged the people to spare the Moluccan’s life but his pleas were ignored. He then went on taking pictures. On one of the photographs, we can see an Indonesian with a machete staring with astonishment into Nachtwey’s camera lens. It must have been taken a second before the victim had his throat cut. This is history caught in flagrante delicto. As a viewer, you can understand why Nachtwey carries off so many awards. However, you can also understand something of what the critics mean when they label him not a war photographer but a ‘war pornographer’.
How far must a reporter go in his mission to get ‘up close’? The Vietnam photographer Tim Page experimented in South Vietnam with a mini-camera that he mounted on to the barrel of a GI’s rifle to be able to capture the moment of death. Did Page do this to document death itself or for his own satisfaction? Does the public really want to see such shocking pictures and, if it does, does the public really have to see them? However truthful can those photographs be? The dilemmas posed in the documentary are universal. Should a photographer take photographs of a massacre or should he try to save the life of the person bleeding to death before his eyes? Should the Reuters journalists who were present at the end of November at the fortress of Qala-I-Jangi in Afghanistan have tried to prevent the torture and execution of chained prisoners? Were they in a position to do so?
By and large, journalists will tell you that it is their job to report the facts when dealing with news stories and not to interfere. That, at least, was the famous response from Horst Faas when he captured, with a 21-mm camera for AP, how Bengali armed personnel tortured and finished off suspected traitors. Faas and his colleague Michel Laurent won the Pulitzer Prize. The suspected traitors died. In Frei’s documentary, Des Wright, Reuters’ cameraman in Jakarta, relates how competitive the business of the war reporter is. ‘Only the most dramatic images make the grade.’ That explains why most professionals adopt such a brutal work ethic. They approach horror as closely as possible but persuade themselves that they have no part in it. ‘It’s a sick profession’, sighs Wright. ‘In action we are definitely not a pretty sight.’
‘It’s important to realise that photographers are not performers’, argues Nachtwey defensively. ‘Nor are we dancers, actors or athletes. Our physical demeanour isn’t important. Our expression lies in our photographs.’ And reacting to those members who accuse him of pornography he says: ‘Selecting images for their presentability is reprehensible. On the contrary, it is precisely those people who every day lead normal, contented lives and who worry about trivial things who should be shaken awake by us, shocked and confronted with what is happening all around them. They are perhaps responsible for these things themselves. They choose governments, they pay taxes.’

Frei’s documentary presents us with a unique perspective on the profession of the war photographer thanks to the miniature film camera that he fixed to Nachtwey’s Canon. The viewer is thus able to watch and consider the moment of the click along with Nachtwey, while hearing Nachtwey’s intake of breath. The viewer becomes the camera lens. Through this device we are able to see clearly just how invisibly and discreetly Nachtwey takes up his position in relation to his subject. Nachtwey moves through the scenery of conflict like a cat through a living room, or like Ghost Dog (the black samurai from the eponymous film by Jim Jarmusch) through the streets of New York. He is inconspicuous, virtually invisible, but has far greater involvement than Cartier-Bresson had with his fly-on-the-wall principle: the photographer ‘catching’ his subject without making contact. While it is true that Nachtwey looks for solid interaction, he does this in the subtlest possible manner. He shows people respect and they give him their trust. This explains how he is able to go as he pleases unimpeded and fix his camera, sucker-like, to their scrawny throats. It explains how he is able to push his Canon into the face of a dying African and how, without embarrassment, he is able to lie down on railway sleepers to capture the image of an invalid Indonesian man’s leg stumps. None of them feels that their privacy is being invaded.
Nachtwey pauses for thought on an important point that is also dealt with by Mort Rosenblum in his book Who Stole the News? (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1993): how do you get people to give relevant events the necessary attention in a society increasingly obsessed with fashion and lifestyle, entertainment and stardom? How do you prevent people from avoiding the big international issues, which are usually not appealing subjects, but, instead, get them ‘to be involved more deeply in their reality’? Companies prefer not to spend their money on magazines in which images of people’s suffering cast a freakish shadow over the wrinkle-free and clear-blue-sky advertising world of Peter Stuyvesant. Nachtwey: ‘They have the feeling that our photographs damage the marketability and image of their products. However, I think that publishers underestimate their readership: people wanting to know about current affairs and concerned about what happens elsewhere in the world.’

still from the documentary War Photographer

As far as that is concerned, 11 September caused enormous change. Not only Time and Stern, but virtually all magazines and newspapers, gave full space to photographs and photographic reports made by Nachtwey and his colleagues. It was as if reportage journalism had suddenly rediscovered its roots, with the masses finding themselves in the 1970s again with no way back. Two million people a day visited Nachtwey’s photographs at For the first time in Internet history there were more people looking at news photography than at pornography.
The premise in journalism today is that something has not truly happened unless it has also been shown on television. Yet relying merely on television to gather news is like lighting the darkness with a stroboscope. We get to see flashes of reality on the screen but no more than that. The considered gaze requires a more precise approach. Television imagery brings a situation to our attention but the image that ultimately stays in our minds almost always comes from a photograph; it sets a news event in a tableau that locks itself in our consciousness and, perhaps later, becomes part of a collective memory. This is why Nachtwey believes that reportage photography always remains essential to complete news coverage. ‘We photographers illuminate the blind spots of television journalism. We record what the tv-cameras don’t zoom in on.’
Nevertheless, there is still much that can escape the attention of even the most hawk-eyed photographer. ‘There is so much that we don’t see’, admits Nachtwey. Srebrenica, the greatest massacre in Europe since the Second World War, happened under the noses of the entire world press which, by that time, had been billeted in Bosnia for four years. The ladies and gentlemen of photographic journalism were right by the scene, yet not close enough. So it was that in the first days and weeks after the disaster, it appeared as if the tragedy had not taken place. The reporters did not believe the bloodcurdling stories told by the many hysterical women in the refugee camps. The blood that stood ankle-deep in the ditches; the barns filled to the rafters with corpses; the people who, out of desperation, had hanged themselves before Mladic came to get them; the thousands of men who had fled into the hills and had been fired upon by artillery and anti-aircraft guns. When it really came to it, the photojournalists – the eyes of the war – were as blind as anyone else.

James Nachtwey, Chechnya

You can’t get in focus with tears in your eyes, said Philip Jones Griffiths many years ago. Anyone allowing free reign to their emotions in a war zone would not last long and would either miss out at important moments or else put themselves and others in danger because of not reacting quickly enough to events. A clear-headed, cool spirit is more vital than a bulletproof vest. In Ernest Hemingway’s Across the River and into the Trees, the American colonel, in Venice after the Second World War, says: ‘It’s all as disheartening as you can imagine. But you’re not expected to have a heart in this job.’ Yet James Nachtwey is certainly not a photographer devoid of conscience. In War Photographer, he muses extensively on the moral dilemmas attached to his profession: do I earn my money from other people’s suffering? Is their misery the source of my success? Am I a parasite, a bloodsucker, the vampire with the camera? ‘The worst thing is the feeling that I, as a photographer, am exploiting another man’s suffering. This accusation keeps haunting my mind. It torments me, because I know that if I ever allow genuine compassion to be overshadowed by my personal ambition, I will have sold my soul to the devil.’
Nachtwey is too well aware of the delicate nature of his profession to pose as some unscrupulous associate of evil. Don McCullin, the British war photographer, one of the trendsetting members of his profession in the 1960s and ’70s, once said: ‘You can’t just skim the surface of hunger, misery and death… You have to wade through them in order to capture them.’ Nachtwey has been wounded several times as a result of flying shrapnel, he has brought debilitating illnesses home with him and, perhaps most significantly, there has never been room in his existence for long-term relationships or a family life. It is made clear in Frei’s documentary that Nachtwey’s work increasingly isolates him socially. ‘I have lost that sense of coming back home. I am sometimes quickly moved to anger when I hear the things that some people around me say. Their problems are so small compared with the injustices in the wars, so painless, so meaningless. When you talk about the things that you’ve seen, their eyes glaze over, and you lose contact. That’s why I don’t even answer their questions any more.’

At the end of the documentary, it becomes apparent how Nachtwey, through his work, not only brings the fate of people in war and disasters to our attention but is also attempting to defuse something within him. How do you magically create something positive out of the mud of war, compassion out of the hatred of an armed conflict, humanity and self-esteem out of degrading situations? ‘The only way in which I can justify my role in this’, says Nachtwey, ‘is by having respect for the fate of the others, in such a way that those other people accept me, so that I, in turn, am able to respect myself again.’ He brushes aside the question of whether he is troubled by fears of death. ‘That’s like asking a marathon runner whether he feels pain while he’s running. It’s about how you deal with the fear.’ A healthy fear of one’s own mortality belongs among war reporters’ standard equipment, together with their notebook and their bag full of camera film. In fact, agencies absolutely detest fearless heroes. As Starbuck says in Moby Dick: ‘I’ll have no man in my boat who is not afraid of the whale.’ Wars can be just as fatal to reporters as they are to soldiers and civilians. This, too, appears to confirm the proposition that journalists are not neutral observers but a part of the events. ‘You are playing on the same stage’, concedes Nachtwey. ‘We are a part of the story, of the war. We cannot behave as though we were outside it.’
Since 1995, more than 770 war reporters have been killed around the world. The number of dead in Afghanistan is approaching ten (at time of writing). Taking risks is unavoidable but the only concrete thing that a dead reporter can still deliver to his agency and the home front is his body. After years of warfare, many journalists develop a thick layer of skin over their souls that simply cannot be filed down. The sensible ones decide to take a break from it for a while. The photographic editor of Stern (Hans-Hermann Klare) feels that Nachtwey, the apple of his eye, is in a danger zone because he has been soldiering on for so long already and yet still continues to do so. ‘Most of the victims in journalism are either newcomers or else the bruisers with the most experience, the old hands in the profession who think that they have become bulletproof.’ Is this true? From the long list of journalists who have recently come to grief in the hotspots of today, it is noticeable that the majority of them were in the first stage of middle age (between 30 and 40) and were known for being extremely experienced. These were certainly not reckless greenhorns or rusty old hands, and they were in most cases simply the victims of bad luck. Timing is of vital importance to all journalism, but in war the profession truly becomes a dance with the Fates. As I once heard someone say: ‘You can have as much experience as you like, but you can’t head back a bullet.’
Are there stories or photos worth risking your life for? Or that are actually worth dying for? As far as Don McCullin is concerned the answer is no. ‘War is a drug’, he said during an interview for the French newspaper Libération. ‘Anyone returning from war finds themselves back in everyday life again and that’s what kills you. But you can’t go on for long like that. You shouldn’t continually be under the impression that you’re living in an action adventure, at the expense of the misery of others. Anyone who says that they need war to be able to “really” live is actually saying that they need other people to die for them.’

Arnold Karskens, the extremely experienced, ever-flexible “smoke jumper” of the weekly magazine Nieuwe Revu, has been saying for years that what war journalists need is a reliable manual. Now, he has written one himself, Reizen langs de frontlijn (‘Travelling along the frontline’, also suitable for diplomats and relief workers). Karskens feels that a book like this can save lives. While that may well be so, defying danger is still the conditional sine qua non of good war journalism. The Dutch television reporters Peter d’Hamecourt and Wouter Kurpershoek told interviewer Sonja Barend in the B & W tv-programme about their experiences in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The two reporters said that it was clear to them just how far you could go in a conflict situation. Their fellow French and British journalists, who had attempted to infiltrate the Taliban-held areas and who had been taken prisoner as a result, were ‘reckless amateurs’ in their eyes who had exchanged their proper business for ‘playing soldiers’. The tone of voice implied that it was their own fault: sooner or later, their foolhardiness had to be paid for. But what, then, about the young American reporter, David Rohde, who broke into the fallen enclave of Srebrenica and went into the woods there with a spade to dig for bodies from the mass graves about which everyone had been speculating but which nobody had yet seen? If patrols had seen the young man, they would have certainly executed him since the Serbs were by then on the losing side following NATO’s bombardments. It turned out well. The reporter was able to creep his way back through the minefields unhurt and made a report of his findings from Belgrade. A few months later he received the Pulitzer Prize. If the American had attempted something of the sort in Afghanistan, D’Hamecourt and Kurpershoek would have certainly had him ranked among the amateurs. The fact is that a degree of bravura is required for good war reporting. Sadly, following the experiences of Vietnam, war reporters no longer enjoy the freedom to go where they please. If a journalist does not want to be forever dependent on pre-chewed, censored or second-rate hearsay news, he will have to climb over the fences every now and then and creep through the dust. It has nothing to do with amateurism. It is all about ‘the shiver of truth’, as Nabokov once described it. And you either feel it or you don’t. The arbitrariness of the two Dutch reporters’ opinion was, in fact, revealed only a few weeks after the broadcast when Kurpershoek and his crew very nearly became the victims of a lynching party on the road to Jalalabad. The leading vehicle in their convoy was ambushed and the Taliban executed four of the most experienced war journalists. Kurpershoek had a lucky escape by making a U-turn when the driver in front of him drove off down the hill in panic. The death of those four journalists had nothing to do with amateurism or impetuosity. If Kurpershoek or d’Hamecourt had been sitting in the first vehicle, then these Dutch ‘professionals’ would have fallen victim to the same fate. In Afghanistan, it was made painfully clear that journalists in a war zone, however able and well prepared, should not count on the goodwill of soldiers or the population. And absolutely not at all on providence.

Arnold Karskens and two guerilleros in El Salvador, 1984

In May of the year 2000, the 32-year-old Spaniard Miguel Gil de Moreno, cameraman for Associated Press Television News, was shot dead in Sierra Leone by armed rebels from the Revolutionary United Front. In the last of de Moreno’s television images, a captain in camouflage fatigues is captured on film springing up out of the waist-high grass and emptying his machine gun at random into the jungle. The enemy is invisible and the only sound is from the whistling of bullets that seem to be coming from all sides. In Spain, a book was published at the end of November entitled The Eyes of the War and was dedicated to de Moreno.

Miguel Gil de Moreno

One of the authors, Julio Fuentes (47), a reporter for El Mundo, was in the leading Land Rover in Kurpershoek’s convoy. He died while the pages were rolling off the press. Together with three colleagues, he was executed close to the Tangi Abrishum bridge. The memoriam that Fuentes had written for de Moreno and two other fallen colleagues at AP Television News could now also be placed in his own newspaper: ‘They were not heroes, nor were they soldiers. As far as being famous was concerned, it left them only with a bad taste in the mouth. In the end, they did it out of a sense of calling, while risking their lives far from home. Their average net salary was no more than $3,500. Thanks to these kinds of professionals, millions of people could watch, from the comfort of their armchairs, the hell of Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone or Afghanistan, the hell in which they lost their lives for a few minutes of video footage or a few lines of text.’

Photographers and cameramen make up the hard core of the robust guild of war journalists. They are the piétaille or foot soldiers who, of necessity, have to squeeze into the firing line while their writer colleagues sometimes limit themselves to dishing up juicy stories in the hotel lobby or press briefings in military barracks. Photographers find themselves in the danger zone more often than their writer colleagues, but are paid less. The dedication that they give to their work has to be far greater as a consequence. They need to have stomachs of iron and nerves of steel. Things from which a normal person would turn and flee, they instead race towards: disembowelled bodies, severed limbs, burning homes, the faces of starving children plastered with flies.
‘We must bear witness. That is the purpose of our presence here’, says French photographer Patrick Chauvel in the documentary The Troubles We’ve Seen. Chauvel has been covering wars for 30 years. He describes reporters as legionnaires and their task as a vocation. ‘We must bear witness. So that people can never say afterwards, as the Germans once did: we didn’t know what was going on.’

It says much about Nachtwey that the 20 years of his life spent on the rim of the volcano have not made him cynical. ‘If war is an attempt to ignore humanity’, says Nachtwey in his vindicating final conclusion, ‘then photography can be seen as the opposite of war. If it is used well, it can be a powerful ingredient in the antidote to warfare. I believe that if everyone could experience a war for themselves just once, that people would understand without explanation that there is nothing that makes it worth this being inflicted on a person, never mind on thousands of people. But not everyone can go to a war and that is why photographers go there: to show what is going on and to ensure that someone puts it to an end. How? By making photographs that are powerful enough to break through the concealment and diversions of the mass media and to shake people awake from their indifference. ‘To protest and by the strength of that protest, to make others protest.’

sources:, “Journalists who paid the ultimate price”, Friday, 26 May, 2000.

– To Hell and Back; Award-Winning Photographer James Nachtwey Finds the Blood and Gore in Every War, Richard B. Woodward, The Village Voice, Tuesday, June 6th 2000

* this essay was published in Photographers in Wartime (2002), a book with stirring photos from reknown ‘eyes of the war’ like Nachtwey, Tim Page a.o., within the Ludion-Beaux Arts collection in cooperation with the Flanders Fields World War I Museum in Ieper, Belgium. Editeur(s) : Gent ; Amsterdam : Ludion –  Paris : Beaux arts magazine, 2002, ill. ; 30 cm. My text was translated by: Guy Schipton.
ISBN : 90-5544-402-2 : 8,70 EUR


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